Education About Asia

What Is Teachable about Japanese Tea Practice?

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The Japanese art known as the “way of tea” (chadō or chanoyu—often translated into English as the slightly misleading “tea ceremony”) is the highly stylized and artistically nuanced preparation of matcha (powdered green tea), often in a tearoom or freestanding structure specifically designed for that purpose. (note 1) While the consumption of tea in Japan began as a largely aristocratic activity during the twelfth century, by the sixteenth century, tea drinking had matured into a highly codified and multifaceted art form practiced by warrior elites, wealthy merchants, and Buddhist clerics.

Thanks to trends such as the current health-driven “tea boom” in North American food culture, the subsequent introduction of matcha based products at major chains like Whole Foods and Starbucks, and even the cinematic depiction of chadō in films such as 2003’s The Last Samurai, interest in tea as one lens through which to teach about Japanese culture and history in the classroom is growing measurably both among educators and prospective students. Varied responses to this trend from the tea world over the past decade include publication of a multi lesson curriculum unit, Tea and the Japanese Way of Chanoyu(2005), targeted at the secondary classroom, the translation of a number of Japanese technical tea manuals into English, and the emergence of a number of American university courses designed around the history and cultural significance of the art.


1. Most tea practitioners avoid the term “tea ceremony,” as “ceremony” implies a performance, possibly with religious overtones, in which some are participants and some are spectators. By contrast, tea gatherings are better understood as social events in which the cooperation of both hosts and guests create a shared and harmonious experience. In this essay, I tend to favor “the way of tea,” “tea practice,” or the commonly accepted Japanese term “chadō.”


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